Working The Web

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Web sites designed by teachers for teachers put ready resources – from lesson ideas to networking advice – right at the fingertips of educators.

Scott Mandel's Internet guest book is filled with requests for help, words of thanks, and lavish praise. And then, of course, there are the exclamation points.

"WOW!" begins one California teacher. "I just found you, and I am overwhelmed. I am a first-year teacher, and I need some ideas for the first week of school. I am really nervous."

"Great site!" writes another teacher from New York. "I've saved the various lesson plans. Whatever I don't use will be passed on to colleagues. I'll send along some lessons, too."

"Hallelujah!" enthuses a third from South Carolina. "Wish I'd found this before. Please keep up the good work. You know how isolated/frustrated teachers can feel. You are a real encouragement. Teachers as leaders!"

Mandel, contrary to what some entries might imply, is a middle school teacher--not a guru or an inspirational healer. But he, or at least his site on the Internet's World Wide Web, has attained almost cult status among Web-surfing teachers looking for support and networking opportunities. And judging from the success of Teachers Helping Teachers--which has had more than 100,000 hits in the past year--he has tapped in to a largely unmet demand.

"Teaching is such a lonely profession," Mandel says. "The only way we can improve it and prevent burnout of new teachers is for more experienced teachers to help those coming in."

Thoughtful exchanges on teaching techniques are not likely to happen during the jampacked schedule of the school day. That's why Mandel thinks the Internet makes such an ideal venue for the exchange of ideas. "At home, you're relaxed," he says. "Then it's a perfect time to do this networking."

No Vanity Page

Mandel's Web site, and most of his knowledge of the Internet, dates back to just over a year ago. An English, history, and musical-theater teacher at Pacoima Middle School in Los Angeles, he decided to spend time over the summer teaching himself to be Internet-literate.

Mandel wanted to create his own home page, but he didn't want it to be a "vanity" page that only included information about himself. Instead, he decided to establish a forum to help other teachers, an idea he'd had since working on his doctorate in curriculum and instruction.

Teachers Helping Teachers began as a teaching-tips page last August, with Mandel supplying about 80 percent of the suggestions and friends contributing the rest. But when Yahoo, a searchable directory of Internet sites, began listing his Web site, the number of visitors jumped from about 75 a day to between 200 and 400, and the lesson ideas began pouring in. Now, Mandel only writes about 15 percent of the ideas, and the rest come from colleagues.

Teachers who log in to his home page can select from a variety of subject areas ranging from classroom management to special education. A teacher could click on "Social Studies," for instance, and be greeted by animated graphics featuring two spinning globes. A quick scroll down the page, and the reader would find a list of lesson suggestions such as "Political Movements in America--How Are Issues Promoted?" or "Multiculturalism Today--Studying American Culture."

The Web site also features a one-stop page of education resources and a "stress-reduction moment of the week" (last month, for example, a "Star Trek" joke helped soothe frazzled nerves). As a new feature, teachers can also use what's known as Internet Relay Chat to conference with colleagues in real-time.

Or they can submit questions and problems to Mandel, who gets between 20 and 40 queries each day. Some of the queries will grow into a future special topic of the week. But in the case of an emergency, Mandel will supply an answer within 48 hours.

The Web site's most revealing page is the guest book, which serves quite literally as a bulletin board for teachers. Each listing includes a brief comment from the visitor, along with an e-mail address to which others can send responses. Many teachers ask an open question and invite answers from other visitors. At one point, the guest-book list grew so long that Mandel had to start deleting entries that were more than three weeks old.

On a typical day, Mandel's "guest book" is sprinkled with signatures and messages from all over the country.

On a typical day in August, the guest book is sprinkled with signatures from all over the country. "I just found this section while browsing. Wow! I'm looking for ideas on teaching ancient Egypt to 2nd graders," writes a teacher from Virginia.

Another from Wisconsin signs on, "Help ... 9th-grade U.S. history teacher looking for a Macintosh mentor to help me learn more about the Internet so I can use it more effectively in the classroom."

And a principal, one of a handful of administrators in Mandel's audience, writes from Kentucky with a request for elementary school lesson plans that integrate all subjects.

Respondents aren't just from this country, either. A recent sampling of international visitors included a Scottish teacher requesting information about American schools, a Malaysian teacher in search of advice on classroom discipline, and a teacher from New Zealand looking for computer training.

Like the queries teachers send in, each guest-book entry gets a personal response from Mandel. The whole operation takes about eight to 12 hours of his time each week, estimates Mandel, who gets no money for running the service. "This is my pro bono work," he says.

On-Line Advice

Mandel's site, of course, is not the only Web page for teachers and by teachers. Kansas elementary school teacher Lajean Shiney and her graphic-designer husband, Lee, run a similar teacher-driven site called Teacher's Edition Online. The Shineys' site, like Mandel's, has only been up for a little more than a year. In its first incarnation (it started out as a personal home page), the site happened to mention that Shiney had a pond in her classroom. That tidbit sparked the interest of teachers who wanted to replicate the idea, and soon the Shineys found themselves exclusively in the lesson-idea business.

Now, the site, which changes weekly, offers lessons, teaching tips, and real-world advice on such topics as "classroom public relations." Teachers can also join an electronic mailing list, on which they can share with colleagues ideas on everything from medieval history to classroom stress.

Shiney, who teaches 4th and 5th graders at Lawrence Elementary School in Wichita, says the site's audience includes preschool teachers through university professors, as well as home-schooling parents looking for creative lesson ideas. "They're doing more sharing this way than what they're even doing in their own building or in their own district," she says. "People are more willing to share this way."

One teachers asks for ways to teach spelling at a school that has no spelling books. The responses pile up.

A recent query on the Teacher's Edition Online mailing list, for example, drew several practical responses. The problem: "I want to incorporate some kind of spelling into my curriculum, but the school has no spelling books. I have no clue where to get words from." The responses pile up: One respondent says he team-teaches and gets together every week with his team to discuss the next week's curriculum and compile a list of vocabulary words to incorporate into the lessons. Another teacher recommends a series of resource books that she discovered at a spelling workshop over the summer. A third suggests a computer program designed to teach spelling.

A fourth teacher offers a few words of caution: "Don't say 'spelling book' because the whole-language police will eat you alive! As an 8th-grade teacher, I use the words from lists of 'commonly misspelled words' in grammar handbooks. Go to half-price bookstores and pick one up cheap. Sometimes, technical writing books have a list in them, too."

Broad Appeal

The flurry of responses to any given question proves that these sites aren't just for beginning teachers hungry for new ideas. Mandel, for instance, finds that seasoned teachers often come in to review the entries in the guest book just to see if they can answer any queries.

But the more experienced teachers have also realized that these on-line conversations are more of an idea exchange, where one question prompts several answers and, in turn, spawns more questions. That just goes back to explain Mandel's theory about how the Internet has emerged as one of the easiest ways for teachers to reach out to others as well as find information for themselves.

"I may be working on a lesson, and I need a piece of information--I can get it on the Internet," Mandel says.

What's more, he adds, there's no limit to the classroom resources teachers can find on the Internet with just a few keystrokes. "They're using it as the ultimate teacher-resource center."

Vol. 16, Issue 04

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